Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Gen Rosa Circuit - Arran

The path into the hills started at the Glenrosa Campsite. It was an easy start, the boot-beaten path gradually ascending next to the winding Glenrosa Water. I’d visited Holy Island the day before (see chapter 1 of Firth of Clyde to the Small Isles), and was setting out to hike some of the Glen Rosa circuit on Arran. Even though it was an overcast day, I was hoping to find a view of Holy Island from the 2000-foot knife ridge between the hills of Goatfell and A’ Chir.

After three miles I came to a fork in the path. A right turn led up to The Saddle, the way to climb Goatfell, or carry on through to Glen Sannox. The 2,866 foot summit of Goatfell was hidden in clouds, so I took the left fork. It made a steady climb, rising 1400 feet over one mile. That led through the heart of Fionn Coire to the high ridge between the peaks of Cir Mhòr and A’ Chir.

There I was faced with a difficult choice. A right turn led to Cir Mhòr (2600 ft), via the Rosa Pinnacle, and then on to Caisteal Abhail and Ceum na Caillich, also known as The Witch’s Step. Many place names on Arran are guaranteed to make hill climbers drool; there’s the Rosetta Stone, Pagoda Ridge, Portcullis Buttress, Rosa Slabs, The Bastion, Devil’s Punchbowl, and Flat Iron Tower. If you fail to climb any of those you can always settle for Consolation Tor. But I needed to be back down at the road in three hours to meet my wife, so I turned left.

It was an exhilaratingly airy, narrow ridge-top path. Five minutes later, at an elevation of 2000 feet, the path split, and another decision had to be made. The left fork made a challenging 300-foot knife-edge climb to the summit of A’ Chir. I was beat in the heat—it was a sweltering 25 degrees—and I’d already climbed 1800 feet over six miles. It was an easy decision for someone hiking on their own. I took the right fork.

That route led around the west shoulder of A’ Chir. In a matter of minutes I lost 300 feet of hard-earned altitude as the trail dropped down dusty, sun-baked slabs of granite before climbing steeply back to Bealach an Fhir-bhogha, Bowman’s Pass. In times past deer were driven up through this narrow pass. Archers, lying in wait, picked them off one by one as they charged past. Damn unsportsmanlike, if you ask me.

The view was spectacular; the massive bowl of Coire Daingean lay at my feet, dropping 1600 feet to the headwaters of Glenrosa Water. The clouds had thinned over the past hour, and the summit of Goatfell looked clear and inviting. I was beginning to regret my decision not to climb it when something else impressive caught my eye. It was the very thing I’d come here to see: Holy Island rising from the blue-green waters of the Firth.

According to the map there is a route from Bowman’s Pass down to Glen Rosa. But nary a path was to be seen, just dusty slopes too steep to safely descend. But 200 feet farther, just beyond the summit of the pass where archers once lay in wait, I came across a trail that dropped east to the summit of Beinn a’ Chliabhain, Creel Mountain (2140 ft).

I did not want to leave the airy heights, but the time had come to start down. The ridge path to Beinn a’ Chliabhain led to another high ridge above Coire a’ Bhradain, Salmon Corry. Five-hundred feet below, like veins leading to a heart, a half-dozen streams could be seen trickling down the corry, the headwaters of the often salmon-filled waters of Garbh Allt. 

It was a joy to be walking downhill (my favourite direction). And so, happy as a midge at a nude beach, I descended to Cnoc Breac, Trout Hill. There are certainly a lot of fishy names on Arran—I’m surprised there’s no Pike’s Peak. From there the terrain gradually transitioned from rock, to heather and grass. After descending another 700 feet I reached the cascading waters of Garbh Allt.

That walk down from Bowman’s Pass remains, to this day, the most amazing ridge descent I’ve ever made. The view across Glenrosa, and to far off Holy Island, made it hard to concentrate on my footing. The lower slopes are steep and soggy, and I slipped and fell twice when distracted by the stunning view.

At 6 pm the Glen Rosa campsite came into view, where my wife had dropped me six hours earlier. She wasn’t there. (Good help is hard to find.) But after walking down the road for fifteen minutes she showed up with a cold can of beer. (I take back the remark about good help.) The journal entry for that long day ends with: Made our way back to the hotel .  . . time to soak in the tub. It had been a fantastic walk. It was an even better soak.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

A full year has passed since my last trip to the islands. I hope it won't be that long before I get back. It is photos like the one below that keep me planning return trips; trips that will be better than ever. That's because looking at photos like this make me realize how complacent I'd become, taking for granted that every year I'd be able to throw a pack on my back and find an island campsite with views like this. 

The photo shows the view to the sea from the summit of Cleit nam Bothan Aird, which lies a mile west of the head of Loch Tealasbhaigh. The large loch in the foreground is Loch na Caillich. In the far distance is the island of Scarp, and off to its right end lies the little island of Cearstaigh. No one can look at a photo like that and not want to sit on that panoramic spot and watch as the sun sets over the sea between St Kilda and the Flannans. I will no longer take something like that for granted, and will treat the next time as if it was the last.

The view the other way was just as memorable: in the foreground is a splendid example of the beehive builder's art, with the high hills of Harris in the far distance.

Monday, September 7, 2020

A Building at Risk

Isn't this absolutely stunning?


I stumbled across this gorgeous beehive cell a year ago on a walk through the Hamnavay area of southwest Lewis. I had decided to visit this particular site because the 1854 OS map indicated it had a two roofed structures of some sort, drawn as squares, which later maps marked as "Old Shielings". Then, while perusing aerial photos of the site, I noticed that there were two small circular structures standing side by side, placed exactly where the old map showed the two square structures. I am always on the hunt for beehive cells, and "ruins" marked as "Old Shielings" occasionally indicate circular corbelled beehive structures, some much older than the shielings. 

Why the surveyors decided not to differentiate between circular cells and rectangular shielings on their maps is a mystery. It shows the sad lack of appreciation they had for the history of what they were surveying.

The above photo is deceptive. What it does not show is that the very top of the dome has collapsed. Over the next 20 years the rest of it will probably fall. Then this magnificent cell will then look like its neighbor, just ten feet away, whose dome has completely collapsed.


I crawled inside the beehive and tried to imaging what life would be like living in this beautiful cell, which lies a mile east of the head of Loch Hamnavay. These cells are ingeniously constructed, and in the following photo you can see where the vertical walls transition to the overlaying stones of the corbelled dome. At the lower right you can also see a tiny window opening - an unusual thing to find in a beehive.


The cell had a two doorways, one facing west with a view to Loch Reasort, the other facing up the glen to the northeast. Depending on the wind direction, one of the doors would be blocked to allow for comfortable ventilation, keeping enough smoke out to be breathable, and enough smoke in to repel the midges.


This cell was a real find, and nothing (that I can find, anyway) has ever been written about it. Over the past 170 years about 20 beehives in this general vicinity have been studied, drawn, and surveyed, but for some reason this one, and several others nearby, have been completely ignored. I describe my journeys to nearly a hundred cells in my third book, Journeys to the Beehive Cell Dwellings of the Hebrides, which will be published by Acair early next year.

Friday, August 28, 2020

An Irate Comment

I recently received an irate comment on an old post. It was a post that described my one, and only, visit to one of those small Hebridean islands whose owners consider it their private kingdom. That visit was back in 1998, and I was only able to find a boatman willing to take me there on a day when he knew the owners were off-island.

The essence of the comment was that I should provide them with my home address, so that they could tromp through my garden, peek into my windows, and then blog about it. Their anger was misplaced, as I did not walk through any gardens, and did not look into any windows. The landing place on the island is below the only house on the island, and I passed by it as fast as possible in order to gain access to the rest of the island. I did take photos of the house as I passed by, as it is quite a beautiful structure. I won't name the island here, but a search of old posts will easily identify it. The photo I am using in this post is from the main access point to Eilean Righ, another 'private island', but not the source of the comment.

I am well aware of the rudeness of so many tourists. A friend of mine runs a guest house near Eilean Donnan Castle, one of the most well known tourist destinations in Scotland. She has many tales of tourists peering in windows, and deciding to have picnics in her garden. So I completely understand the basis of the comment I received. I hope it made them feel better to lash out publicly, even if the target was misplaced.

There are five or six Scottish islands that I've discovered their 'owners' do not welcome uninvited (or non-paying) visitors, and consider their islands to be private kingdoms - the best known example of this was Rum back in the day. Not being a Scottish citizen, I don't feel comfortable commenting on "Right to Roam", and all its aspects, and responsibilities, on roamer and owner. But it eludes my why someone would buy property in Scotland who is not comfortable with the concept, and who would not find a way to make it work in their particular circumstances.

In designing cruise itineraries these days I avoid these five or six islands like the plague - not in deference to the owners, but because their thinking makes the islands sad places to visit, and there is a galaxy of other Scottish islands out there that like to be visited. In my roamings I have always tried to respect the privacy, and occupational needs of landowners, and given them as wide a berth as possible. But there are times when accessing an island means walking near a residence. So to the person who vented on me, I apologize for all the thoughtless visitors who peek in your windows and tromp through your gardens, but I had every right to seek out the historic sites on your beautiful island.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The Lost Summer of 2020

Here I am stuck stateside. I am so jealous, as I hear tales of friends in the UK actually being able to venture out to the isles. But for me that's a 50/50 hope for 2021. A couple of weeks ago I did manage to get to an island. Blake Island State Park is only five miles from my home in West Seattle. I camp there at least once a year, and a few weeks ago I went over for two nights. Because of Covid they were only offering weekend trips, so I had to put up with the typical Friday and Saturday night drunken yotties, who carry massive coolers of booze ashore and proceed to party the night away. Saturday night was the worse, and bizarre to say the least. The idiots insisted on playing the soundtrack of Sound of Music at 100 decibels. I guess it could have been worse . . . 

In pre-Covid times the island hosted a well know Native American experience, where they bake salmon on open cedar fires. In 1993 Bill Clinton hosted one of those dinners for those attending the APEC (Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation) conference in Seattle. But this year they've had to resort to offering a smaller dining experience. One benefit of this, to campers like me, is that they have a bar open to all comers. You have to imbibe outside in the sunshine, and I was able to have a couple pints of Manny's, my favourite Seattle beer.

Clinton & company in 1993

Quieter times


The island is full of raccoons - appropriately masked, I'm glad to report - and I had a good laugh when around 2am, just as the drunks had all passed out, the raccoons raided their campsite, devouring all the snacks they'd left out. One dimwit left their tent open and ran screaming into the darkness. I had to laugh again as a fearless raccoon scampered into it looking for a snack. (In the second photo below you can see the metal food lockers they provide to keep food from the critters, which my 'friends' in the adjacent campsite decided not to use.) Oh how I missed the silence of a campsite on the remote moorland of Lewis.

At daybreak, while the numpties were sleeping off their hangovers, it felt so good to make as much noise as possible as I cooked breakfast. It was only instant coffee and instant oatmeal, but it's amazing just how much noise you can make if you really try.



So that was my island adventure for 2020. Not much, but better than nothing, and I hope to get out for another camping expedition before the days start getting short. I also have some articles in the works for Scottish Islands Explorer, which should keep me out of trouble in the near term. The long term plan is to set foot on Mingulay in eight months, and then Sula Sgeir in ten months. Fingers crossed!

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

North Rona - A Year Later

Here I am spending my afternoons sitting on my deck, tossing peanuts to blue jays and squirrels. They are very happy I'm here, but I can't help looking back to where I was a year ago this week. I was on far off North Rona, on my fourth cruise as a guide on Hjalmar Bjorge. I was looking forward to seeing Rona again, as eight years had passed since my last visit in 2011.




After a walk to the lighthouse we explored the village ruins, a clusters of cells and rectangular structures built along the south side of the monastic cashel. 


At times, upwards of thirty people lived on Rona, surviving off the birds, seals, and the island’s seventeen arable acres. It was a hard life, and the entire population starved to death at least once. In the early 1800s only six acres were under cultivation, and the last permanent residents left in 1839.

The stellar attraction of the village is St Ronan’s Cell and Church. The cell dates to the seventh or eighth century; the church added to its west end in the thirteenth century. The only entrance to the cell is low in the east wall of the church. Several inches of muck usually cover the ground, and as the portal is only a metre high you have to squat down to enter. Once inside it is clear this is not an ordinary beehive. The high rectangular interior, similar to some of the large beehives on Skellig Michael, and one of the cells on the Flannans, signifies it as an oratory.


There are many other beehives on Rona, but aside from Ronan’s Cell they are in a very sorry state. There is also a rectangular structure called the Manse, adjacent to the cashel wall, built from the stones of a dozen beehives that once stood there. And just north of Ronan’s cell are two mounds that mark the sites of beehives cannibalized to build the church.


And so as I toss peanuts to the jays and squirrels in the summer of 2020, I dream of visiting Rona once again. I am signed onto Northern Lights Rona/Sula Sgeir cruise next June, and dearly hope I'll be allowed to visit the UK to set foot, once again, on far off Rona - and finally attempt a landing on Sula Sgeir of the gannets. Thinking positive, I've told the squirrels and jays they'll be on their own next summer. 

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Kerrera - A Year Ago

Here I am stuck at home, with a total incompetent in charge of things. It probably means the virus will run rampant for the rest of the year, and ten's of thousands of unnecessary deaths. It seems trivial, in all of this, that I am concerned about not being allowed to return to the UK in 2021. But those trips have become very important to me over the past 30 years.

At this point, the best island-going I can do is by living in the past. It was in July of last year that I visited a dozen Hebridean islands, starting with Kerrera. I took the relatively new north-end ferry, and then spent a couple hours wandering around the north tip of the island. After a visit to the Hutcheson Monument, and the nearby monastic ruins, I made my way to the shore opposite Rubha a' Cruidh (cattle point). That 'point' is actually a tidal island connected to Kerrera, from where they used to swim cattle to the mainland. It was low tide, which I'd assumed would allow for a dry-foot crossing. But my assumption was wrong. There was still a two-foot-deep channel. 


There were several large stepping stones, but they were rounded, spaced far apart, and far too slick to step on. It was as if the owners wanted the ambiance of stepping stones, but not ones that could actually be used. The new owners must be well off. No usable stepping stones are needed because they've built a hundred-foot pontoon dock, and installed a helipad next to the mansion.


The water was shallow enough to wade across, but I decided against it. It would be worth getting wet if I could wander freely around the island. But I could see that a gate barred access to the track on the far side, which leads to the mansion that was built on the islet several years ago. I got the definite feeling I would not receive a warm welcome. There were bound to be alarms, and Alsatians ready to eat me, so I decided not to spoil my brilliant day with an unpleasant encounter.



I have fond memories of Rubha a' Cruidh. Prior to the construction of the mansion there was a modest house on the island, which looked like a peaceful retreat from 'big city' Oban. I remember many cruises out of Oban, where the sight of that simple house signaled the beginning, and the end, of island adventures. Another memory was Samson, who stood guard on the shore of Rubha a' Cruidh for many years. He would bid us farewell as we departed, and greet us on our return - always ready to repel any unfriendly visitors.


Whoever built the new mansion must not have liked Samson. Either that, or the old owners of Rubha a' Cruidh wanted to keep him. When the mansion was built Samson disappeared, but a year later he made a brief appearance on Oban's North Pier. He was not there for long, and I've not seen him since.


I then made my way to the Marina to await the ferry back to Oban. I had a few minutes before it left, so I took a look at the Waypoint Restaurant. Unfortunately I did not have time for a pint. I promised myself I'd return someday for that pint, and boarded the ferry.

Next up would be a visit to one of my all-time favourte group of islands - the Shaints.